Thursday, November 29, 2012

Trust Issues

I must admit that today's gospel reading unnerves me a bit.  Its ending is quite gruesome, with those who opposed the ascension of their king executed.  I must also admit that I often skip over such passages, excising them from my abridged version of the gospel.

But for some reason, I felt the need to sit with this "parable of the ten pounds."  It's so similar to Matthew's "parable of the talents" that both must point to a common parable.  But Luke's version is so different that he must have had a very different message to get across. As I contemplated it, I thought of all sorts of things that mitigated some of its objectionable nature. For instance, it would have sounded very real to life to people of Luke's day. Local, Middle Eastern kings were incredibly cruel to their enemies.  And it is a parable, not doctrine or even allegory.

But then I quit trying to explain away its difficult parts and simply sat with it a while.  And I found myself drawn to a line not in Matthew's version. "But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, 'We do not want this man to rule over us.' "The line doesn't really fit with much else in the parable.  Presumably the slaves that are the main characters are not "the citizens" who sent a delegation.

I can certainly locate myself in the parable as a servant of Jesus who has been given resources to use on Jesus' behalf.  But today I found myself identifying with those citizens who did not want Jesus to become their king.  I like Jesus just fine, and I am happy for him to bless me or give me some spiritual goodies, but I'm not so sure about having him be my king.  Perhaps that's not so different from Jesus being my master, but it struck me as so today. I want to be a citizen, with all its benefits.  But I don't want to be under the rule of Jesus.

If you are a student of history, you probably know that kings are sometimes wonderful rulers.  When kings truly have their subjects' best interests at heart, kingdoms can run much better than democracies. Democracies don't really provide a better government in terms of getting needed things done. Rather they attempt to prevent power from accumulating in ways that can abuse and oppress.  In a sense, we embrace a very inefficient form of governing in order to preserve our freedoms and prevent our being treated like slaves.  We just don't trust kings.  The really good and kind ones turn out to be quite rare.

And I think I bring some of that distrust to my relationship with Jesus. Is it really a good idea to turn my life over to him? 

One of the things I have very slowly, and still only partially, come to realize is that it is impossible to convince someone or argue someone into letting Jesus be king.  You simply must experience something of the depth of God's love, of Jesus' longing for you, before it makes much sense to hand over your life to him.  And Luke certainly knows about such love.  After all it is Luke's gospel where Jesus says "Father, forgive them" from the cross.  And it is Luke's second volume, the book of Acts, where Saul, a sworn enemy of Jesus, encounters the risen Christ and becomes Paul, one of the most dedicated subjects Jesus has ever had.

Right now, in my own spiritual journey, I find myself spending less time trying to be better at following Jesus. Instead I'm trying to pay attention to, and become more aware of, just how much God loves me, just how much Jesus wants to love me. I need to feel that, to experience that, because it seems I have some trust issues.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

God's Coming Dominion and Wal-Mart

Because the poor are despoiled, 
        because the needy groan,
     I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
    “I will place them in the safety 

         for which they long.”  Psalm 12:5

As the mad dash of Christmas shopping began in earnest last week, with Black Friday sales that started on Thursday, there were also protests at Wal-Mart.  In the DC area, a large crowd - though not nearly so large as the crowds inside - gathered to complain that Wal-Mart paid its employees too little, gave them scant benefits, and used intimidation and coercion to keep them keep them silent. I don't know about any intimidation or coercion, but the low pay and lack of benefits are public record.

In today's gospel, a blind man shouts at Jesus and his entourage as they pass by. People tell the man to be quiet.  Presumably Jesus has more important matters.  After all he has just explained to his followers that he is headed to Jerusalem, to arrest, abuse, and death. But Jesus comes over to the man and gives him what he longs for.  And I have to think that Luke includes this story in this spot as a reminder to us of Jesus' priorities.

As we enter into another Advent, we will once again hear of God's long awaited dominion. From Luke we will hear that this dominion will lift up the poor and the lowly, but will bring down the powerful and send "the rich away empty." The gospels speak of a coming great reversal that we are called to become part of now.

Over the centuries, Christians have often been involved in efforts to help the poor and needy. At times such efforts have helped transform society and make God's kingdom a bit more visible.  But at times these efforts are charity done to make us feel better. Churches spend huge sums of money to go on mission trips to exotic locales, but the run of the mill poor in our midst are often invisible to us. Wal-Mart employees who don't make enough to live on don't quite generate the interest or excitement of a mission trip to Haiti.

I don't mean to disparage missions to Haiti. I am not against such things at all. But if we pass by the blind man on the side of the road, scarcely noticing him as we travel along the way, we have gotten off track.

I am no socialist, but it is clear that unrestrained capitalism is antithetical to the gospel picture of God's kingdom, the new realm or dominion of God.  We Presbyterians claim that one of the primary purposes of the church is "the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world."  I take it that a similar purpose is what made it impossible for Jesus to ignore a blind man on the roadside, even when he was so focused on going to Jerusalem.

Me, I'm sympathetic to those workers at Wal-Mart, but hey, they're having a really big sale on flat screen TVs inside.

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Monday, November 26, 2012


"Once God has spoken." That's a line for this morning's psalm.  It then continues, "twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God."  But I was already stuck on the first part. Sometimes this is what communication with God feels like to me, so infrequent that I might say, "I heard God speak once."

One of the more common spiritual complaints I've heard over the years is about what many have labeled "dryness."  I called it that myself before learning that it was a well established term to describe those periods when prayer or meditation or Bible reading feel empty. Perhaps that is why Psalm 42 begins, "As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God."

I can never remember who said it (I think it was someone from the Alban Institute.), but I've always remembered this succinct comment about Mainline Church difficulties.  "People come to us seeking an experience of God, and we give them information about God."  Thirsty people come to our churches, and we talk a lot about water, but don't seem actually to have any. Turns out that thirsty people aren't really much interested in complex discussions about how water works, its molecular properties, or its capacity to wear down rocks dripping over the eons.  They just want a drink of water.

The possibilities for quenching spiritual thirst seem to multiply continually.  There are more spiritualities available than one can count. (If you don't believe me, check out the category in a Barnes & Noble or browse it online.) Such proliferation suggests a lot of dryness and thirst out there, and so it seems that any church that provided a good watering hole would be overwhelmed with folks. But on the whole, most congregations experience a different dryness.  They are parched for people.

 Not that Mainline churches haven't tried to address this. We recognize that something is wrong, and if you look around, you will find every sort of experimentation with worship. Contemporary, traditional, weekly communion, Taize, informal, and more; and on a variety of days and at a variety of times. Sometimes such experimentation has indeed produced a long, deep drink of cool water. But other times it seems the proverbial "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

I think this morning's psalm may provide a little help in understanding why worship works or fails, regardless of style.  "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from God comes my salvation. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken." A lot of activity in churches is little more than institutional machinations, new and creative ways to talk about water.  Very often it forgets about God. I does not wait for God or trust that God is there.  Instead it desperately attempts to create that which it seeks.

We are about to enter into Advent, a time of waiting. Waiting is a much neglected discipline in our world. It does not feel productive or busy or any of the other things that our culture so values.  But waiting is the spiritual equivalent of listening, an attentiveness that allows the other to speak. Maybe the lack of such attentiveness is one reason God seems to speak so infrequently.  Come to think of it, maybe that's the reason we so seldom actually hear one another.

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Sermon video: Our Truthiness - God's Reality

Other sermon available on YouTube.

Sermon audio: Our Truthiness - God's Reality

Audios of sermons and worship on church website.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sermon: Our Truthiness - God's Reality

John 18:33-38b
Our Truthiness – God’s Reality
James Sledge                                                                              November 25, 2012

If I were forced to choose, I think I would probably say that the best show on television, certainly the funniest, is The Colbert Report on the Comedy Central.  If you’re not familiar, Stephen Colbert is a real person, but also a character, a parody of an egotistical, conservative, cable-news talk show host, and one of the better satirists since Will Rogers. 
One of the recurring features on the show is a segment called “The Word” which is always introduced with the phrase, “And that brings us to tonight’s word,” eliciting wild cheers from the studio audience.  The segment appeared in the show’s premier episode in October of 2005, and that night’s word was “truthiness.” 
Truthiness made fun of the all too common practice of cable news pundits stating as fact things that are only the speaker’s opinion.  Colbert says facts are not things you get from books but that you feel in your gut. “That’s where the truth comes from ladies and gentlemen, the gut,” says Colbert.  “Did you know that you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head?  Look it up. Now somebody’s gonna say, ‘I did look that up, and it’s wrong.’ Well mister, that’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time, try looking it up in your gut.”
For some reason, the word “truthiness” caught on.  You can find all sorts of articles on it.  It is actually in the New Oxford American Dictionary, with Colbert credited for it.  The American Dialect Society named it their word of the year for 2005, defining it as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”  I suspect the word caught on because it is such a perfect word to describe what is sometimes passed off as truth.  But I wonder if it doesn’t also resonate simply because we humans have such a difficult relationship with truth.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The picture on Facebook makes fun of Black Friday saying, "people trample other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have." Today's gospel reading tells of 10 lepers who were healed, but only one (and he was a Samaritan) came back to say "Thank you," prompting Jesus to ask, "Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"

Tomorrow we will be grateful, or at least say that we are. Some of us will list things for which we are grateful. A good exercise, I suppose, if often perfunctory.  And I'm not sure that the things we are thankful for, the things we count as blessings, are always the best lists. Many of us are thankful for our stuff, our nice cars and clothes and houses. It makes sense in a way, but Jesus warns that our wealth can be a curse rather than a blessing.

I find myself in a weird place with regard to gratitude as I write. Not only is it the eve of Thanksgiving, but I've also just returned from a Presbyterian CREDO conference, a rather intense event for pastors where we examine our sense of identity and call including how that intersects with our physical and financial health.  One piece of this is how our church work and busyness can take us away from our actual call from God. The priorities of our work lives often get out of sync with God's priorities.

During my time at CREDO, as I explored my own faith and call, as I questioned my own priorities, I found myself feeling profoundly grateful for certain people, my wife especially.  And I found myself profoundly sad for how my life and its priorities often do not reflect such gratitude.

Today, I'm also doing some work on a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent. Each year the readings for this Sunday focus not on Jesus' arrival in a manger but on his still anticipated one.  And the scripture reading always contains some sort of call to be alert and ready for that arrival. It's not the scary or silly stuff of Left Behind novels, but rather a call to live now according to the priorities of God's coming new realm.  And different priorities make for different gratitude lists, and for different sorts of regrets and sadnesses.

For someone who did very well in seminary and has managed okay as a pastor, I can be really slow to catch on about faith. I had one of my "Aha" moments in the thick spiritual ether of a CREDO conference in the beauty of the NC mountains.  I encountered God's love in something other than a contractual or intellectual or judicial manner.  I encountered it as God's desire for me, and lots of things suddenly felt reoriented. It suddenly felt easier to be vulnerable and not worry about doing it just right.

One specific example was particularly illuminating for me. The notion of confession suddenly felt more like gratitude. Nothing like a child saying he's sorry after being caught doing something wrong, but rather a response to discovering how far a lover has gone to keep loving you regardless. And "Sorry" all of a sudden sounds like "Thank you."

It's Thanksgiving, and I have my list of things I'm grateful for, but the list feels a bit different this year. It feels fresh, and strange, and wonderful.  Thank you!

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Sermon video - New Clothes

Sermon audio - New Clothes

I've been away for a CREDO conference.  Here's the sermon audio from Nov. 11.

Audios of sermons and worship available on FCPC website.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sermon - New Clothes

Mark 12:38-44
 New Clothes
James Sledge                                                                                       November 11, 2012

I have been to three high school reunions.  It makes me feel terribly old to say so, but I attended my 35th a couple of years ago.  This one was a little different from a tenth or twentieth.  After 35 years, my classmates and I were a lot closer to the ends of careers than beginnings.  Quite a few have died, and some had or were just about to retire.  At a tenth reunion, so much lay ahead. Only provisional judgments could be made about how your life had gone.  But at a 35th.
When you gather for a 35th reunion it is difficult to look at people and not make judgments.  Some are fairly superficial. If you’ve been to such reunions you know what I’m talking about.  Some folks have aged better than others.  Some look little changed from their senior class picture.  Some you can’t figure out who they are.
Other judgments require a little more information, some catching up.  Graduate degrees, places they’d worked, where they now live, where their children go to college, and other such things let you begin to rate folks on some sort of success scale.  One is an Air Force general, others are doctors, some own businesses, some are fire fighters, some are teachers, and so on.  Of course not everyone uses the same success scale for their measuring. Some are impressed with Air Force general, and some are not.  Some are impressed with teacher; some are not. Some are impressed with pastor (not many); some are not.
Whether or not you’ve ever attended a high school reunion, you probably use some sort of success scale, some type of measures for making judgments or life choices.  Parents want their children to do well, so they worry about the school district they live in, and children learn at very young age that they will be measured.
Think about all those scales we use: grades, SAT or ACT scores, state school vs. Ivy League vs. community college.  And it keeps going after school: salary, car you drive, where you live, where you vacation, who you know, how important you are, and so on.
Numbers figure prominently in many of these success scales, and such scales show up at church as well. Successful pastor means one at a church with lots of members, and successful churches are ones with large membership and budgets. We’ve just completed a stewardship campaign that talked about giving as a spiritual discipline and the tithe as a way of gauging spiritual health, but we’ll still measure the success of the campaign in total dollars. 
There is a certain practical necessity to this I suppose, but it sure seems out of sync with what Jesus says to us today.  When he sees a widow drop a couple of pennies in the Temple treasury, he says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”  He calls it “more.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

I love social media, but it has its downside. Somewhat like alcohol, it seems to lower inhibitions. People fire off tweets and Facebook posts in the heat of the moment, saying things that they must surely regret later. Or perhaps the lack of face to face contact simply removes the sense of propriety that might be there if the person were standing amongst a group of coworkers.

Today, post election, the venting is going full force. I suppose that Donald Trump had become such a caricature that people barely shrugged when he called the election a "sham" and "travesty" and called for a "revolution." Still, even Trump seemed to think better of it later, removing the tweet. (Social media 101; you can never really remove a tweet. It's still out there.) On Facebook this morning, some of my "friends" are overcome with doom and foreboding. "American is screwed," and "Goodbye America, it was nice knowing you," are prime examples. 

Hopefully such statements are heat-of-the-moment feelings that will subside, but no doubt they are real to those saying them. And I find myself wondering why so many folks feel the reelection of Obama is a death knell for America. And for that matter, why did so many of my liberal friends thing the election of Romney would have been much the same.

In his acceptance speech last night, Obama addressed the pettiness that so often seems to dominate politics, making them seem "small, even silly." He went on to address important and non-petty things he encountered on the campaign trail and then said, "It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy."

I get what he's saying, and I agree to a point, but only to a point. I would never argue that fundamental issues of democracy or people's economic security are small things. But I will argue that in politics, as in all other areas of life, humans tend to overestimate the largeness of their cause, their issue, their concern, etc. I say this as a Christian with a fundamental belief in a human brokenness that issues forth in idolatry, giving ultimate status to things that are not. Idols can be quite good and important things. In fact the best idols always are. But when any cause or institution or idea or ism becomes ultimate for us, our sense of reality is distorted, and we act as if things are larger and more important than they actually are.

There seems to be an innate need for humans to attach to something larger than self. Some label this an innate religiosity. But O how this often leads us astray. From a Christian perspective, anything that gets in the way of loving God with my entire being and loving my neighbor as myself is an idol that distorts me and my life. It creates loyalties and passions that are out of kilter, and so I live in ways that are not true to who I really am.

You can see such out of kilter loyalty and passion at work in today's gospel. The synagogue leader's loyalties are misplaced. They are to doctrines and practices meant to encourage faithful life with God. But the leader has mistaken them for the ultimate. Similar things happen all the time in the Church when pastors and members confuse the success of their congregation with the work of Christ.

And I think that much of the partisan bitterness in our world today (in both secular and church politics), is because we have given ultimate loyalty to sub-ultimate things. And so my ideas for a better country are more important than the country itself. My country is more important than the world. My notions of how the church should act are more important than the church itself. And my notion of what God is like and how God should act replaces the living God who is beyond my full understanding.

There's a saying that became a book title which reads, "Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff." Perhaps we would all do well to apply that adage to our loyalties and big things from time to time. A reminder of the universal human tendency to find subordinate substitutes for what should truly be ultimate.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voting against "Christian"

I'm trying not to pay much attention to the election today.  I'm not going to sit around and watch returns come in as I've done in past elections. I'll check in now and then and hope there's a decision before I go to bed.

Still, you can't be on social media and not hear some news about the election.  I already saw the results of one exit poll that claimed people who attend church weekly voted for Romney, 62-37 percent, while those who never attend broke 62-34 for Obama. I have no idea if this is accurate or if it portends anything about the final results. I am curious, however, about what this says about faith in Jesus and whether or not attending church has much to do with that.

As a follower of Jesus (admittedly not always a very good one), I have my problems with both candidates. Both went on and on about their concern for the middle class, presumably because that's where the most votes are. But neither said much about the poor, and that was one of the first things Jesus said his ministry was about, "good news for the poor."

In today's gospel, Jesus tells a parable about bearing fruit. He talks about a fig tree that has produced no figs for years. Unless you just happen to like the look of fig trees, one without fruit isn't worth much, and so this one is slated to be cut down.  In the parable, it gets a reprieve, but only a brief one.  It will get tender loving care, but it still needs to bear fruit, or it's a gonner.

It's hard to miss Jesus' point. We are expected to bear fruit. Attending church on Sunday is a good thing, but I don't think it's the fruit, or at least not the only fruit, that Jesus is talking about.  After all, his opponents were meticulous in their religious observance. Jesus expects us to worship God, but he expects more than that.  And I feel confident that the fruit he's looking for is not whether we voted for Romney or Obama.  Perhaps our understanding of how best to love our neighbor causes us to prefer one candidate over the other, but the notion that one candidate is the Christian candidate makes me think a lot of people have gotten confused about what that term means.

And so in the spirit of elections and voting, I'll make a motion to do away with the term "Christian." It's not an idea original to me nor is it the first time I've suggested it.  But I think it painfully obvious that the term, along with Sunday church attendance, often has little to do with following Jesus. And that is as much a problem for liberal Christians as it is for conservative ones. We both assume that Jesus is with us.  But very often, we need to be thinking about how we must change in order to go with him.

I went to my polling place today and voted for the candidates I prefer.  My faith figures prominently into my choices, but I don't think this means that people who vote opposite me are "un-Christian." And so I'm voting a second time today, this time against the label "Christian." (I know this is out of order from a parliamentary standpoint; no second, no discussion, but hey, it's all metaphor anyhow.) I'm still looking for a candidate that rolls off the tongue easier than "follower of Jesus," but I'm increasingly convinced it's time to give "Christian" the boot. 

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Partisan Jesus

As one who lives in a "swing state," tomorrow evening cannot arrive soon enough. I'm as tired of the commercials for my issues and candidates as I am for those of the other side. And I'm convinced that the local news programs are shortening their actual broadcasts to create more and more available ad time.

Maybe I'd feel less disgusted by it all if the commercials had much substance, but more often than not, they massage "facts" or tell straight out lies in order for one side to say that the other side's candidate hates babies, America, Jesus, and puppies.  And the partisan name-calling has invaded Twitter and Facebook with a vengeance. The distortions and name-calling there are only more outlandish and preposterous than on TV.

I thought about our partisan divisions today as I heard Jesus say, "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three."  Sound familiar?

So is Jesus just one more dividing line in an already polarized world? I think I have something of a "yes and no" answer to such a question. Certainly Jesus is not the meek and mild sop who never offends anyone or creates any conflict. No one fitting such a description ever got executed for his trouble.  Clearly Jesus scared some people, and so it stands to reason that his followers might scare the same people. I might add that this provides a useful measure of whether your or my divisiveness is of a pair with Jesus'. Are the same sort of people upset with you? (If you aren't sure, you would do well to get to know you Bible a bit better and discover just who it was Jesus offended and who he embraced.)

But while Jesus scared people and even called them a few choice names on occasion, he did not seem intent on creating divisions. He did not go around looking for folks to label as bad or as outsiders.  If anything, he worked to pull outsiders in.  However, his very presence was a source of division. To encounter Jesus and his message created a kind of crisis moment. Could people accept, embrace, or go with Jesus and his message, or did they have to turn away.

Let me quickly add that I'm not talking about the stereotypical, evangelical choice to accept Jesus as your personal Savior or else. The positive judgment on the Gentiles in Matthew 25:31-46 clearly speaks of those who choose the way of Jesus unwittingly. Rather, the crisis Jesus' presence confronts us with is whether we will consider following Jesus and his ways over the ways honored by the world.

There's a famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi that speaks to this. He studied several faiths and was drawn toward Jesus' teachings. Yet he was repelled by what he experienced from those who called themselves Christian and said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

To spend much time around someone who really does try to follow Jesus, who is not so unlike Christ, can be a little unnerving. Such people can be difficult to relate to because they don't function out of the world's norms, and their presence can be an uncomfortable critique of our lives. They are easy to admire from afar, but to get very close can provoke a crisis. It can demand that we acknowledge their Christ-like way or turn away from it. And they need not call us names or condemn us. Their presence itself is sufficient.

Such moments of crisis and division are rare. Like religious leaders in Jesus' day, religious leaders in the Church manage and domesticate Jesus so that our divisions are along much more trivial lines, lines that typically mirror the dividing lines active in our culture. More fundamental questions about true life, true community, true relationship with God and other, get lost amongst our petty differences. 

Despite claims to the contrary, our divisiveness is rarely about the future of our society or country. It is almost never about the hope of a new day that Jesus insists had drawn near. Perhaps that is why people have become so tired of our present day partisanship. After all, partisanship is a long-standing part of American political history. But our present divisiveness often seems to be for the sake of itself, rancor for rancor's sake, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Oh, for some divisiveness that was actually over Jesus and the Way he proclaims rather than the small and petty divisions that so often occupy us.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sermon - Lengths in the Chain

Hebrews 11:39-12:2
Lengths in the Chain
James Sledge                                                                                       November 4, 2012

I subscribe to a magazine called The Christian Century. It’s been around since the late 1800s, and long served as a prominent  voice for liberal, Mainline Protestantism.  But I mention the magazine today, simply because of its name, The Christian Century.
It took that name at the dawn of the Twentieth century as America and its churches entered a new era brimming with hope and optimism. The remarkable technological advances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led many to believe that humankind was on the verge of solving all sorts of problems, from wiping out diseases to increasing agricultural production so that hunger might soon be a thing of the past.
The dawn of the Twentieth Century was accompanied by a nearly unshakable faith in human progress, a view shared by American Christianity. The missionary movement had grown exponentially in the late 1800s, and many in the church, both conservative and liberal, envisioned a fast approaching day when the gospel truly had been carried to all the world.  Along with utopian visions of a world without poverty, hunger or childhood diseases, there would be a parallel progress in the advancement of faith.  The world would progress and become Christian, and so it would be the Christian Century. And from that optimism, the magazine took its name.
Obviously things didn’t work out quite like people expected. Barely a decade into the new century, World War I broke out, demonstrating clearly that “progress” also meant progress in our ability to maim, kill, and terrorize on a scale that had previously seemed unimaginable.
And that was followed shortly after by a worldwide Great Depression that makes our current economic difficulties look like a party.  Then came World War II, the Holocaust, and nuclear weapons.  No one was any longer talking about the inexorable march of progress toward an ideal human society. 
At the same time, anti-colonialism movements were accompanied by a resurgence of indigenous faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, and talk of bringing the kingdom began to subside.  There was not going to be a Christian Century, and with the loss of such hope, faith took on a more personal focus.  Faith was about getting right with God personally. It was primarily about believing the right things, being moral, and getting a ticket to heaven, to a better place.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Not Grieving the Spirit

On All Saints' Day, the gospel passage is not anything warm and fuzzy. Jesus' opponents seek to trap him, and he speaks of his followers not fearing death, of hell and judgment and unforgivable sin. It's the sort of passage that might prompt me to look at the other readings if this were one of the Sunday passages for use in preaching.

Many are familiar with Jesus' words saying, "even the hairs of your head are all counted." But I've most often heard them quoted to mean, "Don't worry, God won't let anything bad happen to you."  But Jesus uses them to reassure us about facing death, and not a natural death at that.  They're part of a warning to hold fast to faith when the going gets tough, even deadly, a reminder to trust God's care even when facing death, because, says Jesus, there are things worse than death.

It's a little unnerving to hear Jesus say that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. I must admit, however, I'm not entirely sure what that means. We can say all sorts of nasty things about Jesus and get a pass, but not the Holy Spirit?  What's that all about?

I'm not at all certain, but considering that the author of Luke is the same person who tells us in Acts about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, I wonder if this warning isn't only for people of faith.  Are only those who have received the Spirit able to blaspheme the Spirit?

Given the context, that seems to make sense. And so this would have nothing to do with typical discussions around "believe and be saved, don't and you're in trouble," but rather would be about how those who do feel the Spirit at work in their lives respond to that Spirit.

Understood this way, perhaps the tendency of Presbyterians to stay away from the Spirit is an unintentional act of self-preservation. If we're never aware of the Spirit's presence, perhaps we can't actually blaspheme her.

But all that aside, I have to think that part of what Jesus is saying is that once we really experience the Spirit's presence within us, granting us faith and strengthening us to follow Jesus into even the most difficult situation, it would require the most incredible act of willful and intentional disobedience to turn away that Jesus can't imagine us doing such a thing. That's why he concludes his warning about facing persecution, arrest, and even death this way. "Do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say."

Do not worry.  So why is it so hard for me, and many like me, to entrust myself to the Spirit?

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